SGI's BioXP 3200, a commercial DNA printer, forms the heart of the digital-to-biological converter. When Gibson, sitting in his office, sends a message to the converter, it begins its work using pre-loaded chemicals. He could just as easily send such a message from anywhere.
In late May, Gibson's team disclosed how they'd used the device to create DNA, RNA, proteins, and viruses "in an automated fashion from digitally transmitted DNA sequences without human intervention."
Work on the converter began around 2013, when SGI and Novartis, the drugmaker, ran a test to see if they could use data from flu outbreaks to very quickly construct seed viruses, from which vaccines are made.
Their chance came in March of that year when Chinese authorities reported H7N9 flu infections and posted the bug's DNA sequence data online. (The H and the N in flu types refer to hemagglutinin and neuraminidase, proteins on the outer shell of viruses that are recognizable by the human immune system.) "It was Easter Sunday," Gibson recalls, "when I got an e-mail that H7N9 bird flu was causing quite a scare in China. So we were very quickly able to get the DNA sequence."